Show of contrition for Eta violence does not go far enough for many in Spain

Madrid Letter: Some believe Basque conflict should not be treated as two-sided

A floral tribute to the victims of Eta member Henri Parot, in the Plaza de la Memoria in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Alava, Euskadi. Photograph: Getty

A floral tribute to the victims of Eta member Henri Parot, in the Plaza de la Memoria in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Alava, Euskadi. Photograph: Getty

 

It has been 10 years since the Basque terrorist group Eta formally announced the end of its campaign of violence. But the political and cultural aftermath of those years continues to provide this episode of Spanish history with an extended coda.

On Monday, Arnaldo Otegi, leader of the EH Bildu coalition, which is seen as the successor to Eta’s political wing, offered an unprecedented show of contrition on behalf of the defunct armed group to all its victims.

“We feel your pain and from that sincere feeling we affirm that it should never have been caused, and nobody can be satisfied that all of this should have happened, nor that it continued for such a long time,” he said.

It was the latest in a long sequence of shifts by both the pro-independence Basque left, which EH Bildu represents, and Eta. This latest gesture is significant. Although Eta apologised in 2018 for the deaths it had caused of those not involved in “the conflict”, Otegi’s words went further, being addressed specifically to Eta’s victims and implicitly including members of the security forces.

By the time Eta laid down its weapons for good, in October 2011, it was a shadow of the organisation that had terrorised Spaniards for four decades. Infiltrated by the Spanish police, hounded by French security forces, and with most of its leadership behind bars, the group limped towards the permanent ceasefire, persuaded by Otegi and others that there was no alternative.

When discussing Eta’s legacy, statistics speak volumes. Between 1968 and its demise, it killed 853 people, wounded 2,597 more and issued death threats to 42,000 people, many of whom required round-the-clock bodyguards. Ten-thousand business owners were extorted, forced to pay the so-called “revolutionary tax”.

Kept hostage

Many of the above numbers are provided by the Memorial for Victims of Terrorism, a centre established by the central government in Vitoria and opened in June that seeks to remind visitors of the trauma of the violence. It even includes a life-sized replica of the zulo – the small wooden-walled hideaway – where prison officer José Antonio Ortega Lara was kept hostage by Eta for 532 days.

In the cultural sphere, recent years have also seen efforts to ensure the Basque conflict does not slide into oblivion. The novel Patria (or Homeland), by Fernando Aramburu, offers a painstaking portrayal of life in a small town before and after an Eta murder and has been a literary sensation.

More recently, the film Maixabel tells the true story of a woman who agrees to meet with two jailed Eta members who killed her husband, Juan María Jaúregui, a decade earlier. The film has been a runaway success, “a sociological phenomenon”, according to El Diario Vasco newspaper, which has drawn praise from across the political spectrum. The Basque writer Katixa Agirre told of how at a showing of the film in a cinema in Bilbao, spectators burst into song along with the melody of Xalbadorren heriotzean, which was played in tribute to the murdered man.

And yet, elsewhere, the memory of Eta remains deeply divisive. Certain political voices have automatically discredited as “theatre” any concessions by the organisation or the politicians who have spoken for it over the years. The international attention given to Eta’s ceasefire and 2018 disbandment drew outrage from many in Spain who believed the Basque situation should not be treated as a two-sided conflict the way Ireland’s Troubles were.

Demagogic tool

Politicians on the right refuse to acknowledge EH Bildu’s status as a democratic player, some apparently due to a genuine sense of grievance but others simply out of a determination to use the issue as a demagogic tool. EH Bildu’s parliamentary support for the leftist coalition government of Pedro Sánchez has provided ammunition to those who gleefully accuse the Socialist of being locked in a dark deal with separatists and terrorist sympathisers.

Last month the far-right politician Francisco José Alcaraz took this rhetoric to an extreme, saying that the prime minister “represents the interests of Eta and should go to prison” for having allegedly neglected the group’s victims.

Similarly, the latest statement by Otegi has drawn a familiarly divided response.

Some believe he did not go far enough, while the leader of the conservative Popular Party in the Basque region, Carlos Iturgaiz, described the words as “repugnant and disgusting”.

And yet, Maixabel Lasa, the subject of the celluloid success that carries her name, took a different view of Monday’s expression of contrition.

“That’s what we were asking for, isn’t it?” she said. “Well, there it is.”

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